Authors: Marion Lennox
A BRIDE FOR CHRISTMAS
‘Tell me again why I’ve bought this wedding salon.’ Guy Carver was approaching Sandpiper Bay with dismay. ‘You didn’t say this place was a hundred miles from nowhere.’
‘You want to expand.’ On the line from Manhattan, Guy’s partner sounded unperturbed. ‘Sandpiper Bay makes more sense than any other place in Australia. I told you…’
‘You told me what?’
‘It has the world’s best surf,’ Malcolm said patiently. ‘It’s surrounded by arguably the world’s loveliest National Park, and half Hollywood owns property at Sandpiper Bay. Where are you now?’
‘On the outskirts. It looks…’
‘Don’t judge until you see the town. Even my wife thinks Sandpiper Bay is great. She’s furious you’re doing the planning and not me.’
‘As if you could plan a Carver Salon.’
‘What’s there to plan?’ Malcolm demanded. ‘Order a lake of ice-grey paint, give the widow a paintbrush and take a few days off.’
‘I don’t have time for a few days off,’ Guy snapped, irritated by his partner’s cheerfulness. ‘I need to be back in New York on the twenty-sixth for the Film Conglomerate do.’
‘We can handle Conglomerate with our hands tied. Spend Christmas on the beach.’
‘Or not.’ Christmas was a wasted day as far as Guy was concerned, and he had better things to do than surf. This year he’d timed this trip deliberately so he’d be flying home on Christmas Day. Christmas mid-air would get him as far away as was possible from useless sentiment.
He’d joined the coast road now, and he had to admit the place did look spectacular. Sandpiper Bay appeared to be a tiny coastal village bordering a shimmering sapphire sea, with rolling mountains beyond.
‘So what am I looking for?’ he demanded of Malcolm.
‘A shopfront on the beachfront shopping strip. It’s called Bridal Fluff.’
‘Bridal Fluff?’ He didn’t explode. His voice just grew very calm. ‘Did I hear right?’
‘Sure did. The ex-owner’s one Jenny Westmere. Widow. Apart from her dubious taste in naming her salon, she sounds competent. We’ve offered her twelve months’ salary to make the transition easier.’
‘There can’t be a transition from Fluff to a Carver Bridal Salon,’ he said grimly. ‘I’ll gut the place.’
He was turning into the main street now, and what he saw made him blanch. Bridal Fluff was indeed…fluff. The shopfront was pastel pink. The curtains in the windows looked like billowing white clouds, held back with pink and silver tassels. A Christmas tree stood in the window, festooned with pink and silver baubles, and a white fluffy angel smiling seraphically down on passers-by. The name of the shop was picked out in deeper pink, gold and silver. ‘What the…?’
‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,’ Malcolm said hastily, guessing what he was seeing. ‘We don’t need to give this woman any organisational role. We’re just keeping her on the payroll to keep the locals happy. Every other salon we’ve acquired, the previous owner has been so chuffed to be associated with the Carver salon that the takeover’s been a piece of cake. The bottom line is money. I’ve checked the books. I said it was a good buy and I meant it.’
‘And if it’s not…?’
‘If it’s not we’ll just have to wear it.’
Malcolm had worked with Guy for years. Guy’s reputation for dazzling event management left everyone he worked with stunned, but his personal reputation was for being aloof. Malcolm’s cheerful nature, combined with a brash business acumen that matched Guy’s, made them a formidable team. Together they’d built the Carver empire into the most lucrative events management chain in the world.
‘No need to fret,’ Malcolm was saying now, all breezy certainty. ‘You and Mrs Westmere will get on like a house on fire.’
‘Jennifer Westmere. I told you. The widow.’
‘Great,’ Guy muttered, pulling into a parking lot by the pink door. ‘Middle-aged, frumpy and dressed in pink?’
‘Nah,’ Malcolm said, though he was starting to sound uneasy. ‘The reports I have say she’s young. Twenty-eight.’
‘And I’m stuck with her?’
‘The contract stipulates twelve months’ employment.’
‘I’ll buy her out,’ Guy said grimly. ‘I should have stuck to Manhattan and Paris and London. I understand weddings there.’
‘Then we’d miss out.’ Malcolm cheered up again. ‘Now you’re expanding the Carver Salons worldwide, it’s time we moved into Australia. Sandpiper Bay’s more hip than Sydney or Melbourne. There’s a huge buzz about the Carver Salons expanding. So go meet the lady with the pink fuzz. Make friends.’
‘Not even close,’ Guy muttered as pulled his car to a halt and finished the conversation. ‘Friends? As if.’
Jenny was kneeling on the floor and tackling about a hundred yards of hemline when he walked in. It was the fourth time she’d been around this hem. The dressmaker had thrown her hands up in horror, and now Jenny was left holding the baby. So to speak.
‘I know it’s not right,’ the bride’s mother was saying. ‘We practised last night, and as she swept up the aisle I was sure the left side was longer than the right. Or was it the right longer than the left? Anyway, I knew you’d want to check. It has to be perfect.’
‘Mmphf,’ Jenny mumbled through pins, and then the door swung open.
This man’s weddings were known throughout the world. He was known throughout the world. The phone call to Jenny offering to buy her premises had left her poleaxed.
‘But why?’ she’d stammered, and the man handling the deal for Guy had given her an honest answer.
‘Eight of the ten most prestigious weddings in Australia have been held within ten miles of Sandpiper Bay in the last two years,’ Malcolm had told her bluntly. ‘There’s a caveat on new businesses in what’s essentially a historic commercial district. Setting up a business from scratch would be complex. Our people have checked your premises. Your building is big enough for us, and you already have a reputation for providing service. We’ll do the rest. If you’re at all interested, then we just need to settle on a price.’
She’d named a figure that had seemed crazy. Ten minutes later the deal had been sealed.
Jenny had replaced the receiver, stunned.
‘It’s more money than I ever dreamed possible,’ she’d told her mother-in-law, and when Lorna had heard how much she’d gasped.
‘That’s wonderful. You’ll be able to buy Henry whatever he needs.’
‘I will.’ Jenny smiled her delight. Even Lorna didn’t know the depths of her despair at not being able to provide Henry with optimal medical treatment.
‘But what will you do with yourself?’
‘That’s just it. They’re offering me a job, doing what I’m doing now, only on a salary. Twelve months’ paid work, with the possibility of extending it. Holidays,’ she said dreamily. ‘Sick pay. Regular income with no bad debts.’
‘And Guy Carver as your boss? Working with someone the glossies describe as one of the world’s sexiest men?’
They’d grinned at each other like fools at that—a twenty-eight-year-old widow and her sixty-year-old mother-in-law letting their hormones have their head for one wonderful moment—and then they’d put their hormones away and thought seriously about what it entailed.
‘Does he have any idea what he’s letting himself in for?’ Lorna had demanded. ‘A country wedding salon…’
‘It won’t be a country salon for long. Currently the international jet-setters and the rich locals bring their own planners. Carver wants that business. I’m guessing most locals will stop being able to afford him.’
‘Just like the rest of the businesses in this town,’ Lorna said, grimacing.
‘Sandpiper Bay’s changing.’
‘It’s being taken over by the jet-set,’ Lorna agreed. ‘Every property within a twenty-mile radius is being snapped up at extraordinary prices by millionaires who spend two weeks of every year here.’
‘We can’t stop it.’ Like Lorna, Jenny was ambivalent about the changes to their rural backwater, but there was little choice. ‘The guy acting for Carver said if I didn’t agree then they’d buy out the old haberdashery and set up in opposition. We’d be left with the brides that couldn’t afford Guy.’
‘Which would be most of our brides.’
‘Right. I’d go under. As it is, my wealthy brides subsidise my poorer ones.’
‘Which is why you’re a lousy businesswoman.’ Lorna gave her daughter-in-law a subdued smile. ‘Like me.’
‘Which is why I’m selling,’ Jenny said firmly. ‘We have no choice.’
So the arrangements had been fine. Sort of. Up until now it had been phone calls and official letters, with the business operating as normal. Only there was suddenly a lot more business, as people heard the news. Jenny was fielding phone calls now from as far away as California, from brides thrilled with the prospect of a Guy Carver wedding. She’d put them off, not clear when she’d officially be running Carver weddings, not really believing in the transition herself. But now the man himself was standing in the doorway.
‘I’m looking for Jennifer Westmere,’ he said, in a rich, gravelly voice, and Jenny’s current bride gasped and pointed down.
Jenny pushed aside a few acres of tulle and gave Guy a wave. ‘Mmphf,’ she said, and gestured to the pins in her mouth.
‘I’m here on business,’ he said enigmatically, and Shirley, the mother of the bride she was looking after, gave a sound that resembled a choking hen.
‘You’re Guy Carver. You’re taking over this salon. Ooh, we’re so excited.’
Guy stilled. Uh-oh, Jenny thought. One of the stipulations in the contract was that this takeover be kept quiet until the salon had been transformed to Carver requirements. But that hadn’t been stipulated until the third phone call, and in the interim Lorna had managed to spread the news across Sandpiper Bay.
There was nothing she could do about that now. She watched as Guy sat, crossing one elegantly shod foot over the other. ‘Carry on. I’ll watch,’ he said, his voice expressionless.
Great. Jenny went back to pinning, her mind whirling.
The man was seriously…wow! He was tall and dark, almost Mediterranean-looking, she thought, with the sleekly handsome demeanour of a European playboy. Not that she knew many European playboys—to be honest, she didn’t know a single one—but she imagined the species to have just those dark and brooding good looks. He looked almost hawk-like, she decided, and she also decided that the photographs she’d seen in celebrity magazines didn’t do him justice. His magnificently cut suit and his gorgeous silk tie screamed serious money.
Actually, everything about him screamed serious money.
There was a Ferrari parked outside her front window.
Guy Carver was sitting in her salon.
Was he annoyed about the lack of confidentiality? Was he annoyed enough to call the deal off?
‘What’s the problem with the dress?’ Guy asked in a conversational tone, and she mmphfed again and waved a hand apologetically to the bride’s mother.
‘The hem’s crooked,’ Shirley Grubb told him, beaming and preparing to be voluble. ‘Kylie’s not getting married in a crooked dress.’
‘When’s the wedding?’
‘Next Thursday.’ Shirley looked smug. ‘I know two days before Christmas is cutting it fine. We were so lucky to get the church. It’s just this dratted dress that’s holding us up.’
‘When was the dress ordered?’
‘Oh, she’s had it for years,’ Shirley told him, ready to be friendly. ‘When Kylie turned sixteen I said we’ll buy your wedding dress now, while your father’s still working and while Jenny’s here to organise it. No matter that you don’t have a fella yet. Just don’t put on too much weight. That was four years ago, and now we can finally use it.’
‘Um…right,’ Guy said mildly. ‘When’s the baby due?’
‘Mid-January,’ Shirley said, and beamed some more. ‘Aren’t we lucky we got the dress made? When we ordered it I told Jenny to leave heaps to spare at the hem. I was six months gone with Kylie before my old man did the right thing, and here’s Kylie got her fella the same way. Hot-blooded, we are,’ she said, preening. ‘It’s in the genes.’
Guy appeared to be focussing on the tip of one of his glossy shoes. Wow, Jenny thought. Guy Carver chatting to Mrs Grubb. Has he any idea what he’s getting into?
She went on pinning. It gave her breathing space, she thought. So much tulle…
‘Why did you choose Bridal Fluff to organise your wedding?’ Guy asked conversationally, and Jenny winced. She just knew what Shirley would say, and here it came.
‘Lorna—that’s Jenny’s mother-in-law—and me went to school together. Lorna won’t charge me.’
Ouch. This technically wasn’t her salon any more, Jenny thought. Nor was it Lorna’s. It belonged to Guy.
‘So this arrangement was made a long time ago?’
‘When we were girls. Lorna always said she’d plan my wedding, and any of my kids’ weddings and any grandkids’ weddings, and when I rang up last month she said sure.’
‘Lorna isn’t planning your wedding,’ Guy said mildly. ‘It seems Jenny is. And Jenny works for me.’
For the first time Shirley seemed unsure. Her mouth opened, and failed to shut again.
‘You mean,’ she said at last, ‘that we have to pay?’